After a 9 hour train ride from Beijing, I arrived in Hohhot. There was a mom and young kid in the bed next to mine. He was pretty loud and was watching some kids show on his iPad, without headphones. (I’ll come to find this is the norm in China). He also ate the cookies I had on the table without asking. I didn’t mind though because I didn’t really like them haha. The train ride surprisingly didn’t feel long at all.
The hostel I would be staying at offered free pickup from the train station to their hostel. When I walked outside a Mongolian man with a sign that said ‘—— Hostel’ was waiting. (I’m leaving out the name for reasons you will read later on)
As we drove throug the city, I felt the air was much cleaner and cooler than Beijing. I actually didn’t like Beijing much. It was too hot, crowded, and polluted. Hohhot had a nice feel to it.
We arrived to a street and he told me to go down this small alley and at the end would be entrance to the hostel. The alley looked a little old and shady.
When I first rang the bell to enter, I heard my friend Nobu yell and came to say hello. He was excited to see me, and I was pretty happy to see him too. I met him during my study in Dalian and he wanted to come to Hohhot to travel with me for a little bit.
When first walking in, there is a really cool open air room. It feels really comfortable and has a Mongolian look. The inside main area also has this same feeling. Two Mongolian girls, who spoke Chinese and English helped check me in and I was off to my room. The room had six beds, with some older looking sheets, and a bright light. There was no AC so it was pretty hot, but at that point, I was just happy to relax.
There was one Chinese guy already in the room, who spoke English very well. He was living in the hostel because of a job he had in the city. Nobu was also in this room. He told me about the tours the hostel offered. There was one that was for 1 day and night in the Xilamuren Grassland. It included transport, food, stay, and horse riding for 630 yuan ($97). This price was only if 4 people went together,and two were already going tomorrow, so if we joined, we could do that. I knew that was way too expensive and we could do it by ourselves for much cheaper.After settling down, we went to get some Mongolian food.
Getting back to the hostel later, I was ready to go to sleep. Around midnight, everyone had finished getting back, it was a full room. We turned off the lights and I was ready to relax and sleep. I started feeling something crawl on my neck and immediately went to swat it away. Since it was completely dark, I had to turn my phone’s flashlight on to see what it was. I shined the light to see something I’d hope to never see, a bedbug. I was pretty stressed out about it because I know that bed bugs cause really annoying bites and also they get in your bags and clothes and go with you everywhere. My bags were also both on my bed with me, which was the top bunk. I thought maybe it was a fluke, but then I felt something on my legs. Again I swatted them off and shined the light to see 3 or 4 small bed bugs on the sheets. It was already 1am, but I just couldn’t stay in this bed, so I got all my things and got down as quietly as I could. I went downstairs and luckily one of the girls just came out of a room. I told her the problem and she told me there is another empty room I can stay in.
This room was across the open air room and seemed to be their storage room or something. There was 4 beds, but 2 of them were filled with random things. The room was pretty musty and the sheets seemed really old. Before I did anything, I made sure there were no bugs in my bags. I got two of them out of the top of my big bag and small bag. I didn’t see any others. When I lay down, the bed felt like it hadn’t been washed or slept in a while, and I was paranoid about more bedbugs, but somehow I finally fell asleep.
The next day, my ankle which was previously hurt, felt much better. Nobu and I decided to go around the city to some main sights. We first ordered Mongolian breakfast from the girls at the hostel. It was milk tea, some milky grain snack, and fried bread. Pretty good and only 15 yuan($2.30). We set off and took buses everywhere, the bus is only 1 yuan($0.15) for each ride, no matter how many stops you go.
The first place we went was the Inner Mongolia Museum, which is free. There was some obvious Chinese propaganda on some of the historical explanations about how the communist party saved the inner Mongolians many times. Overall, it had some interesting history and artifacts about Inner Mongolian and Mongolian culture, as well as some Chinese history.
Afterwards, we ended up visiting two Buddhist temples. one was Da Zhao Temple 大召寺, which is the largest in the city, and the other Five Pagoda Temple 五塔寺. They were pretty similar to each other but the second one had almost no people, which was nice. We got to explore the whole temple pretty much alone.
That night, I was reluctant to again sleep in that musty room, but it was much better than the other one with the bedbugs. Unfortunately, I found one crawling under me that night and killed it. It might have been the one I got out of my bag because there were no others after.
Honestly, if it wasn’t for the bedbug problem, I would really like that hostel. The staff is very nice and flexible, the atmosphere is really comfortable, and it has a nice location. The girls even let us leave our bags there while we were to go to the grassland and camp out, and we could get them the next day. This is why I’m not going to write the name of the hostel, because I don’t want people to search this and get a bad impression. It could be a one time thing, and the staff was informed so hopefully they will fix it.
This day would just be a figure it out as we go day, which is what most of my days traveling are like. I don’t think Nobu is used to it yet. After getting up and getting ready, we left the hostel around 8am.
We found a bus to the train station where we could get a bus ticket to the Xilamuren Grassland. It was 21 yuan ($3) for a 2 hour bus ride.
The bus was pretty comfortable. I did have a guy fall asleep on my shoulder but he was a nice dude who had picked up my fallen water bottle earlier, so I let him sleep.
The bus ride had some nice views and beautiful scenery of the grasslands with flowers.
We arrived, and the second we got off the bus, and an older Mongolian lady came to us and said “Hello” with a heavy accent. I would come to find out that’s the only English word she knows, along with “okay”. She could speak Chinese, and when I replied in Chinese, she was surprised and happy. She offered a bunch of different activities and told us to come look, so we got on the back of her and her friend’s motorcycles and were taken to an area with a lot of Mongolian Gers.
She told us to enter one of the Gers and that we could eat lunch there. We took a look at the menu and they offered a lot of different Mongolian food, especially meats. It was a bit pricey, but not too bad. We ended up getting some lamb meat, vegetables, and rice. She gave us free Mongolian milk tea. The food was good.
After the meal we laid down to take a nap. I suddenly realized I had left my only pair of shoes, besides the sandals I was wearing, on the bus! I really like those shoes and it’s a pain to find shoes that fit right, and I am already traveling and sometimes sandals don’t cut it. Especially if i’m climbing. First, I tried to find the number for the bus station that sold us the tickets, but the number didn’t go through. I then remembered that the lady who brought us here seemed to know two foreigners were coming, so I think she probably knew the bus driver somehow.
Nobu and I told her about my problem and she said she would call him. After some back and forth on the phone, and some waiting, she said that he would be back in a couple hours and bring my shoes! Wow, it really surprised me how nice she was for helping. We then decided to go ride horses while waiting for my shoes.
Side note, in Chinese, there is the word 阿姨, which means Aunty. You can call ladies that are around your mom’s age this.
The Mongolian Aunty told us the price for riding horses should be 80 yuan( $12) for each destination you go. This older, rough looking guy in an army outfit came over with some horses. He asked us which places we wanted to go, and we told him only 1. He didn’t seem to want to accept that and kept asking, but finally after we insisted only 1 he complied. He told us it would be 240 yuan. It should be 160 yuan for two of us. He told us we were paying for three horses, two of ours and one for the guide. I knew that was bullshit, so we said no. The Aunty came over and we told her and she told him we only pay for two horses. He agreed and we got on. A younger guide accompanied us.
After about 15 minutes of riding, we got to the beginning of the area with the “river” that we picked out for our destination. The guide then told us that we had to pay 50 yuan each to go further, because he had to pay the boss of the area. This sounded like more bullshit. I asked him how much longer we could go and if it was much better looking further in, he said yes another 20 minutes and a very nice area. Nobu seemed to want to enter so I just went along and we paid 100 yuan in total. We went further, and it was a little nicer, there were some wild horses, but not much different than the area we just came from. There also didn’t seem to be any gate or boss. After about 10 minutes we turned back around. He started hitting our horses so that they began galloping fast back to the camp.
After we returned, Nobu and I agreed that was just a lie to get us to pay more money. We then told the Mongolian Aunty about it and she said that he shouldn’t have charged us that and that she would talk to him later. We returned to our Ger to rest a little more and wait for my shoes which should be coming in about an hour.
I fell asleep for a bit but then was awoken by the Aunty who put 100 yuan on the table. She could have easily just not talked to the guy or kept the money for herself. It was pretty awesome to get the money back.
A bit later, I went outside and she came over to me holding my shoes. I couldn’t believe I was able to get them back, I thought they’d surely be gone forever. I was very grateful for her help. At the same time, she told me that “my friends” have just arrived. She pointed to a family of blonde haired white people. A father, mother, son and daughter. I asked if they’re American and she said yes. I waved to them and she told me they don’t speak any Chinese and asked if Nobu and I could help translate.
I walked over and found out they were from the Netherlands. They could speak English. Translating for them was fun. Although there were a couple words I didn’t know, which Nobu helped with, I was able to successfully help them communicate everything they wanted to know and everything the Aunty wanted to tell them. It made me feel good about my Chinese level.
I told the Aunty that we wanted to camp out tonight and asked her for a good place we could do so. She gave us some suggestions. After hanging out in their Ger area for a while, we decided to set out. It was about an hour and half before sunset. We walked toward this small mountain area that had some sand or maybe rocks on top, with trees to the side. We figured this would be a good area to camp.
After about 30 minutes of walking, and people passing by in cars, bikes, or trucks, a group of 3 younger looking people on a motorcycle passed by, a girl wearing an American flag bandanna on her face, and was cute, so I waved to her. She waved back and then they stopped. We walked over to them and, in Chinese, they asked where we were headed. Nobu hesitated to tell them, but I figured they were friendly so I said we wanted to find a place to camp. I pointed to the place and they understood. They said that rock area wasn’t safe because people mine there. We asked about other places farther out, but they kept insisting it wasn’t safe. They offered us to go to their Ger area where they all worked. They said there were no guests tonight so the whole place was empty, and that we could set up our tent there. We agreed to go there to check it out and they pointed to a far off gate with red pillars.
They set off and we walked for another 20 minutes and arrived to the gate. A car came toward us and two guys told us to get in. They gave us a ride from the gate to the area with all the Gers. We were then greeted by the girl with the American bandanna. She told us about all the areas we could set up our tent, or if we wanted to go to the tree area near the rocks, but other people own that land. We decided to stay in their land and set up a tent in the far corner, near some chickens and the vast grasslands behind us. After setting up the tent, we saw the sunset.
Two Mongolian guys wearing some special clothes looked like they were wrestling. We walked over and saw them practicing a special kind of Mongolian wrestling, they were sparring. Mongolian wrestling, known as Bökh (ᠪᠥᠬᠡ) is the folk wrestling style of Mongols in Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, where touching the ground with anything other than a foot loses the match. Bökh means “durability”. Wrestling is the most important of the Mongolian culture’s historic “Three Manly Skills”, that also includes horsemanship and archery.
After watching a while, Nobu wanted to try. He asked them, and they said “If you get hurt it’s your own risk”(In Mandarin). He put on the outfit, shook hands with one of the guys, and they began to wrestle. A crowd of girls gathered around. After some struggle, Nobu was brought down three times.
He took off the outfit and told me it was my turn. I hadn’t worked out in a long time and am a pretty small guy so I didn’t want to try. They were egging me on and the girls were watching, so I decided to just do it. I put the outfit on, shook hands with the guy, and we started. I had no idea what I was doing, and there were special rules to this Mongolian wrestling, but we grappled for a little and he was able to get me down pretty easily. I told him I wanted to go again, my pride hurt a little for going down so quick. This time, I was able to go for a bit longer, but in the end I went down first again. A few scratches on my side from going down was worth the experience. Here is the video of the embarrassing yet fun experience.
It began getting dark, so we sat a our tent site and ate dinner which consisted of a can of beer, some bread, a sausage, chips, and cookies that we had bought earlier at the station. The stars out in the grassland are amazing. You can see what I think is the milky way and pretty much every star out there. I tried to take a picture, but my camera isn’t good enough to see stars.
The next 2 or 3 hours, fireworks were going off in different parts of the grassland. Not only did we get an amazing view of the stars, we got free firework shows. Nobu is a really heavy sleeper and when the last fireworks went off around midnight, I could hear him snoring. On the other hand i’m a pretty light sleeper so I fell asleep a little later.
I woke up a little before the sunrise and saw the sky was a beatuiful color, unfortunately I fell back asleep during the sunrise, but woke up a little after.
We packed up our things, said goodbye the the nice people that helped us out, and set off to return to the Aunty’s Ger area. We had breakfast at her place consisting of a big roll of this Chinese bread, some veggies, and more milk tea. After saying goodbye to the Aunty and others, they told us the way to get on the bus was just to walk to the main road and wave down the bus when we see it.
After getting to the road, I asked this younger girl who was waving cars down to offer horse rides how to get on the bus. She told me to wait for the yellow bus and just wave it down. It was hot and sunny out, we saw many, many buses drive by, and the girl kept telling us those weren’t the ones. After about 45 minutes, she gave us the signal that the right t bus was coming, and we waved it down to stop.
After sitting down, a guy came over to us and asked us for 21 yuan, the exact price we paid to get here. I guess i’m always expecting to be ripped off because of being a foreigner. The bus stopped several times to let people on and off on the way back, so it took a bit longer than the last bus ride.
Returning to Hohhot, we got our bags from the the hostel and transferred to a cheap hotel I booked last minute. I had planned to Couchsurf the day before and tonight. A host accepted my request a couple weeks ago. He seemed very nice and we had communicated on Wechat the night before the grassland trip. He ended up canceling. I was a little angry over the fact he told me at almost midnight the night before he agreed to host me. Not only that, but I was the one who had to ask him. He had all good reviews so I was surprised by this. He tried making up for it by sending a very apologetic cancellation on Couchsurfing.
The hotel I booked for us was a 7 days inn. It was only 170 yuan ($26) for a night, 85 yuan($13) for each of us. That night we went to a Mongolian restaurant and ate pumpkin and camel stew, special bread with cheese, and tortilla like camel dish. The meal was a little expensive, about 50 yuan each ($8), but worth it.
The next morning we have a 9 hour train ride to Yinchuan. We will just stay one night to get another train in the morning to Dunhuang, which is going to be an 18 hour train ride.
Anything I should include that you want to know but didn’t see here? Any experience with bedbugs? Let me know what you think in the comments!
To be continued…